My mom lugs the Nutribullet to the curb. I trail behind her, barefoot, with the blender’s various accouterments. I pick hardened strawberry smoothie bits from the rim. She sets the Nutribullet down in the patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street, next to the KitchenAid.
Almost all of the appliances in our kitchen were gifts from Barry, her ex, who moved out two days ago. She won’t stop until each one is lined up on the curb.
“He didn’t just go back to her. He never even officially left her,” my mom says. She’s trying to make sense of Barry’s going back to his wife, Deb, after three years of separation.
I tell her it’s not her fault. That as far as we knew, Deb had the house and Barry had the trailer on the river property. Nobody could foresee Deb breaking both her legs being the thing that made Barry realize he still loved her and needed to move out to take care of her.
“I saw it coming, though. I’m a stupid woman.”
“You’re not stupid, Mom. I think he’s just a coward.”
“You never, ever ask a separated man for a divorce more than once, you got that?”
I can’t imagine ever dating a rat-tailed construction worker like Barry. I’m going to end up with someone sweet and sensitive. Someone like Elijah, who works at the BP and is handsome enough to be a model. At night I feel so cooped up in the house that I started taking drives and I stop at the gas station for chemical tasting french vanilla coffee. While he does inventory, he tells me stories like how once at the mall a talent scout handed him a business card. There’s a party tonight at his friend’s house and I’m invited.
It’s the toaster oven next. I follow behind her, the electrical cord limp in my hand like a wedding dress train.
“We don’t need his pity gifts anyway,” she says. The toaster oven thuds into grass.
I like the pity gifts and consider speaking up about the toaster oven before resigning myself to the fact that I’ll have to go back to making pizza rolls on the peely, non-stick, sure-to-give-me-cancer baking sheet I used until May of this year, when Barry went all out for my mother’s fifty-fifth birthday.
Cars slow down as they pass, necks jerk like those inflatable car lot dancing air men. They see my mom’s face, wrinkles like corduroy sloping towards her mushed tight lips, and speed up again.
We had the stove before Barry, so I can still cook us dinner. Stouffer’s Veggie Lasagna because I’m trying to go vegetarian and my mom keeps forgetting except she remembered to buy this lasagna. She pours herself a glass of cranberry ginger ale left over from last Christmas.
“I’m going to start that Special K diet again tomorrow.” She inspects the nutrition facts on the Stouffer’s box.
“You don’t need to lose weight, Mom.”
“Oh honey, yes I do.”
“Then I’ll do it with you. We can do it together.”
“You don’t need to lose any weight.”
For all the faults I found in him, Barry was good at making my mom feel beautiful. In the two years they were together, she had only mentioned dieting a handful of times. For the most part though, I’m glad Barry is gone. In the winter, his trailer pipes froze and the plows didn’t venture back that far, so my mom let him move in with us. He was always waking up five minutes earlier and beating me to the bathroom. I’d have to sit and listen to him hock loogies into the sink for at least ten minutes before I could straighten my hair.
The lasagna slides off my fork in globs of ricotta cheese and pureed broccoli. I wanted to watch Cake Boss but mom’s the heartbroken one so she gets to pick. We watch Tom Selleck trail criminals in his Ferrari and short shorts. I’m sitting as far away from her as I can on the scraggly, L‑shaped couch. Seeing her in pain, so openly hurting, irritates me. All of the criticisms my dad lobbed at her over the years loop in my head-she watches too much t.v. and doesn’t read enough, she never wants to do outdoor activities, she redecorates the house instead of communicating her feelings in any healthy manner- until I start to think they’re my own and hate myself for it. The hot middle of the lasagna burns my esophagus. My stomach feels like a Halloween pumpkin that’s just had its guts scraped out.
I flip open my Tracfone to texts about the party tonight. Bunny wants the address. I envision myself swallowing sparkling shots of Burnette’s pink lemonade and leaning into Elijah. Making out with Elijah on someone’s grandmother’s bed. I could climb out my window, I’ve done it before.
“Do you want a fudge pop?” I ask. I study Tom Selleck’s meaty thighs, trying to find myself attracted to them.
She’s squeezing the couch cushion and drawing shallow breaths.
“Hey, hey, are you okay?” I push my empty plate further into the table like I’m making room for something.
Her eyes stay shut and she says, “Fine. Just that chest pain again. Same kind from years ago.”
It takes me a moment to I remember.
Walking out of my fifth grade classroom clutching a blue plastic bag filled with panty liners, a tampon, travel sized Secret, coupons for free razors, and a pamphlet on puberty. Excited to show my mom and talk about girl stuff. But it’s my aunt waiting outside the school, corralling me into a station wagon with all my cousins, saying my mom is in the hospital. I pick apart taquitos, too anxious to eat, dangle my legs from the stool in my aunt’s kitchen. Strain my ears during the phone call. Cry into a bathroom hand towel at the thought of a future with just my dad. Dollar store Herbal Essence shampoos and hot dogs and baked beans every night. Around eight, my aunt says Praise the Lord, they ran all the tests they could and found nothing wrong. When I’m dropped off at home, my mom is on the couch, pale blue and flimsy, more beautiful than ever. My dad instructs me to leave her alone for the night. I tuck my Welcome to Puberty bag under the pillow and in the following weeks, teach myself to shave my legs with kitchen scissors.
“Okay, Mom, but you’re older now. It could be different, you know. We have to get it looked at.”
I’m suddenly calculating how to support my two younger sisters on my Perkin’s tips. Then I’m angry at my mom for putting disposable plastic cups through the dishwasher and shrugging off high blood pressure readings. For my always having to do all the Googling for us, prod her to get annual blood tests.
“Honey, really, I know what this is. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“It won’t hurt to get a second opinion.”
It is never the actual death I imagine when it’s the people I love dying, only the aftermath. How it will feel like digging a stump from my chest, leaving a ragged hole. How I’ll look crying at the funeral.
“Really, it’s just nerves.”
I pause the tv on a still of Magnum getting into T.C.’s helicopter and look straight at her. “Literally, Mom.”
After twenty minutes of leg bouncing in the waiting room, we are led to a room made of pale blue partitions. I’m relieved to be closer to the source. If my mom has a full-blown heart attack in here, she’s somehow safer than in the waiting room. A medical student pounds all relevant information into a bulky laptop, then leaves. On the gurney bed, she lays straight and still as the boards on the truck cap stand Barry built in the yard last summer. Her silver and turquoise rings dull under the room’s fluorescent bulbs. She grimaces.
. I think about Elijah taking money from the register, selecting a scratch off, and putting the money back, then coining the ticket until the counter is layered in gray paper dirt. He’s explained to me some loophole about how this is not stealing and it all balances out.
All around us, nurses swish in their pants and talk in their registers. I flip through a Cosmo I lifted from the waiting room. The tongue is essential when giving your man a blow job. I’ve never given a blow job. My tongue slams against my bottom teeth, pushes hard, makes sure they aren’t going to fall out of my gums.
A doctor steps in, white tufts of hair tumbling from his ears. My brain’s still fixated on Cosmo, so I envision blowing the doctor for a few ugly seconds.
“On a scale of one to ten?” he asks.
“Seven,” my mom answers.
I hold the magazine to my face and squint tight, hiding my half tears. I don’t understand why my mother must endure such pain over and over again.
The doctor wheels her out for an EKG. She was right, I’m sure, nothing is really the matter. But I just wanted to know for a hundred percent.
I think about Deb, both broken legs propped up on the couch next to Barry, binge watching Storage Wars. Him fixing her those jumbo cans of Progresso soup. I wonder if my mom is trying to summon him by hurting.
I saw Deb in a Michaels once but never told my mom. I needed a poster board for a school project. In line, Deb’s meaty hands held hot glue sticks and a bouquet of fake irises. Wedding ring still on her finger. The gray ringlet curls atop her head looked like they were growing in reverse, trying to weasel their way back into her scalp. She recognized me as my mother’s daughter. I wanted to tell her to take Barry back so I could straighten my hair in peace. I wanted to tell her that my mom deserves happiness and she should keep her distance. And then I felt silly, because if Barry could love her pasta salad hair and round body once then he could do it again, and no one had any control over how any of this stuff worked, and she was probably heartbroken too, standing with her fake flowers and hot glue gun sticks and her still-on wedding ring.
“Do you think Barry ever loved me?” My mom asks when they wheel her back from the EKG.
I say I do and believe it. In whatever way he was capable of, he did.
The EKG was normal, they inform us. When the nurse asks, my mom reports her pain has dropped to four.
The nurse brings the discharge papers. On top, they’ve stapled pamphlets about anxiety attacks and counseling resources. I root through my mom’s purse looking for the Medicaid card to hand the lady with the wheely pay kiosk. The purse spills over with years old receipts, leaking lipsticks, a knotted hair brush. And then, because she’s not dying, I’m angry at her. For not being able to manage her pain. Because if she’d gone to therapy or something then she’d know what to do. I’d be at the party right now slurping jello shots instead of taking care of her.
“Do you think you’ll try the therapy?” I ask her.
“I’ve got my sisters. They’re all the therapy I need,” she says, and sits up out of the paper bed.
My mom’s cracked debit card still slides okay through the reader at McDonald’s. I recognize the cashier as a girl who graduated last year and my cheeks burn.
My order is one Mcdouble and one small fry. My mom’s orders are less predictable. Sometimes she gets a Filet-O-Fish, which seems to me like something only pregnant women should order. Whenever she orders it, I picture myself years away, all grown up, content, and pregnant. It’s a November afternoon and my hair’s cut to a short bob. I’m wearing some neutral colored cardigan. And the seams of my life are tight, double-stitched, not fraying like my mother’s.
Tonight she says, “Grilled chicken snack wrap and small chocolate frosty‑I mean- milkshake, please”
I pull into a parking spot, not ready to go home just yet.
For a few moments, it’s silent except for chewing. I hate the way she chews, but I savor it, because I know in a few minutes she’ll be expressing regret for having eaten this at all.
It’s the diced onions and ketchup that make the McDouble. I push the onions to the roof of my mouth until they sludge down my throat.
My mom alternates between bites of her snack wrap and sips of her milkshake. We’ve read in so many magazines that eating slow helps you lose weight. In my head it’s a competition to stay skinny for as long as I can, until time shapes me into an exact replica of her flabby belly and wide shoulders.
We don’t talk about Barry or diet tips or how nights when I’m at Perkins, eating grilled cheese on break, I watch Amish families scold their children and I miss home. I don’t mention Elijah, or the fact that he works at the gas station caddy corner to this parking lot, and that I go out of my way to pass it, playing my Strokes cd extra loud. I think about telling my mom about the time I saw Deb, maybe it would show my loyalty somehow. But I don’t say anything. I pull out my phone and text Bunny to ask if Elijah ever showed. We shove our wrappers into the bag and watch headlights pull in and out of the Dollar General across the street.
It’s the boxed-in dark of nine o’clock.
In the basement, I slide two Miller Lite cans from the fridge into the pockets of my pajama shorts. My mom is mostly asleep on the couch. Hands on my pockets, I waddle past the living room.
“Goodnight Mom, love you,” I say in the automatic way I greet customers at Perkins.
“Goodnight honey. God bless you. I love you.” She says like she says every night.
I pull out my plastic handle of Vlad, shake the last drops into the first open beer. Bunny’s text reads: Cops came, didn’t see him. At some randos apartment now.
Outside, metal clinks, a tailgate drops. Through my bedroom’s cobwebbed screen I see Barry. He bends with his knees and lifts with his legs. First the microwave, then the toaster oven. The blender he grabs with one hand, snags the electric mixer with the other. He slides them silently into his truck bed on a flattened cardboard box. I think of Deb’s sausage fingers fumbling with the blender buttons. Barry winds the appliance cords into neat ovals around his palm, secures them with zip ties. He doesn’t even look at the living room picture window, where he knows my mom sleeps on the couch. He creaks the tailgate shut under the bleached moon.
No one has ever loved my mom in the way she needed, not even her own self. I turn from the window before he’s gone. I walk down the hallway to check that her ribcage is still moving up and down under the sheet.
Kayla Jean lives in Virginia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, New Delta Review, Rejection Letters, and XRAY. Find her on twitter @dbtoil